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Europe Thursday, 12 April, 2001, 18:59 GMT 19:59 UK
Germany's eugenics controversy
Will Germany embrace scientific advances in IVF?
Will Germany embrace scientific advances in IVF?
As part of a programme examining Europe's commitment to Dignity - as enshrined in the Charter of Fundamental Rights - Edward Stourton examines the bioethics debate taking place in Germany.

Contemporary German society is in the throes of a debate about life and death. A dark chapter of the 20th century has come back to haunt the very 21st century public discussion that is currently taking place in Germany on the subject of bioethics.

The debate is focused around an awe-inspiringly delicate technique of reproductive medicine called PGD - pre-implantation genetic diagnosis. Working with an artificially fertilised embryo which would be invisible to the naked eye, embryologists remove one cell so that its genetic make-up can be tested.

PGD is still illegal in Germany
It is enough to tell them whether there are any genetic abnormalities before they decide whether or not the embryo should be implanted in the womb. PGD has been used in Britain for a number of years to help parents who run a risk of passing on genetic defects to their children.

But in Germany is it illegal - largely because of the folk memory of the Nazis and their eugenics programme.

Webcast Wednesday 1400 GMT:

Hereditary Health Courts

In the 1930s the Nazis established what were called Hereditary Health Courts, panels with the power to order the sterilisation of individuals they felt were genetically inadequate.

The decision-making process was arbitrary in the extreme and had no basis in real science and before long, it was followed by a programme of extermination of people judged unfit members of the German race - the mentally ill or disabled, for example.

Like the moment of selection between those who would live and those who would die when people arrived at Auschwitz, the eugenics programme was based on the conviction that it is possible to make judgements about the quality of a human life.


It can mean making comparative judgements about embryos - discarding one and giving another the chance to flourish.

And many people see echoes of that in the practice of PGD. It can mean making comparative judgements about embryos - discarding one and giving another the chance to flourish.

Great benefit

But PGD can also be of great benefit to parents who want to have a healthy child and in the port city of Luebeck, on the Baltic coast, there is a group of doctors agitating for change. They can identify a group of patients they believe would be helped by PGD.

Patients have to go abroad if they want to receive the treatment - it is legal in most of the rest of Europe - and there are plenty of people in Germany who believe that position is becoming more and more difficult to maintain in a European Union.

The doctors' campaign has coincided with a more general debate about whether Germany should be so much a prisoner of its past that it retreats from the opportunity of real progress.

Opponents of legalisation


Germany is a burdened country. We should be careful even to think about starting a discussion on this matter.

Herr Pechbrenner
But some of the strongest opponents of the legalisation of PGD are the parents of disabled children. We spoke to one couple, the Pechbrenners, whose daughter Meike has Rett Syndrome.

They argue that PGD could deprive other parents of the joy they have found in bringing up their disabled child. "Germany," Meike's father told us, "is a burdened country. We should be careful even to think about starting a discussion on this matter."

Ambulance to the future:
1920 GMT, Sunday 15th April on BBC 2.

Reporter: Edward Stourton
Producer: Louise Adamson
Executive Producer: Farah Durrani
Series Producer: Kate Snell

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Edwrad Stourton
Ambulance to the Future
See also:

30 Mar 01 | Health
31 Mar 99 | Medical notes
04 Oct 00 | Health
04 Oct 00 | Health
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